On Galata bridge over the Bosphorus facing the "new' 18th century mosque
It wasn’t a deliberate choice – we always prefer travelling off-season (cheaper rates, a reasonable chance of good weather), and October 15 seemed like a good date to go. Our first inkling that we had chosen a more than usually interesting time for the holiday came the next morning when, at 3:30 we awoke to the sound of loud drumming.
At first when you wake up you can’t quite remember where you are. After a while – “oh yes, I’m in Istanbul, staying in one of the little streets below the Blue Mosque – my first visit.” The drumming gets louder and louder, and then you notice it’s pitch dark outside. We peer through the curtains – under the street lights two young men walk slowly over the cobblestones, beating large drums in a slow, deliberate rhythm. They are dressed in their best clothes. One man wears a gleaming white suit.
It is the time of Ramadan – or Ramazan, as it is written in Turkish. For a month the faithful do not eat from sunrise to sunset (about 13 hours). The drummers’ task then is to wake up the neighborhood in time to eat before going to prayers. I’m sure they have a high rate of success!
Later that day we see large queues forming outside tents which have been erected all over the city. Most people are buying “lunch boxes” wrapped in aluminium foil. Others sit in crowded restaurants, waiting. Then, around 6.30 p.m., a cannon goes off, startling a few unsuspecting tourists. Large groups of “picnickers” sit down in parks, on lawns, on stairs, in open spaces, and have their first meal of the day.
Innocently enough we turn up at the restaurant at about this time, but the waiter tells us to come back in another half-hour. The hungry are eating. As we turn away, so a young couple (fast eaters) get up, and we are given seats near the quietly moving trams.
Anybody who remembers the Istanbul of 50 years ago is in for a surprise. This wonderful city, situated on chains of hills and mountains which define the waterways – the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara – has been cleaned up, and sparkles in the autumn sun.
Fishermen line the Galata bridge, and the rate of pulling out of fish is remarkably rapid. We sit in a restaurant on a lower level of the bridge and watch the lines disappearing into the clear blue water below us, followed by an upwardly mobile fish disappearing above our heads. What a far cry from the former situation when “anyone who went swimming in the Golden Horn needed their brains tested, as part of the autopsy” (the guide book “Turkey”, by Reg Butler, in association with Thomson Holidays).
Butler gives full credit to some public-spirited leaders (above all the mayor), who began a cleanup of Istanbul in the mid 20th century. More than a billion dollars were spent in tearing down slums, rehousing families, restoring buildings and investing in parks and playgrounds.
Several generations of city dwellers have grown up under the present conditions, and one feels the pulse of the city. In the evenings thousands of families stream along the streets and around the gardens of the Blue Mosque and Agia Sophia and there is a festive air to the city.
Strings of tiny lights sparkle in the trees, and the spectacular buildings and fountains are lit up. Vendors sell schwarma, spun sugar and roasted chestnuts. Open-air restaurants set up in tents are crowded with people. Most of them are devout Moslems, and yet couples stroll arm in arm in public. And while the majority may be fasting, the restaurants are open during the day for tourists and those few people who do not fast.
Not far from the Bosphorus the pedestrians have a hard time competing with the never-ending line of traffic, and the traffic clutter is worse than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. There seem to be no pedestrian crossings (except for some tunnels and a bridge further away), and people dodge across the street between cars. A safer way is to join a group of people who are waiting for that non-existent gap in the traffic on the main road, and then, in a united body of determined pedestrians, surge across successfully. Going it alone is not recommended. Several times I saw a woman stranded in the middle of the main road while the cars continued to drive around her. I will never complain about Israeli drivers again (or so I thought then).
We walked everywhere. You can’t really get lost in Istanbul. Just walk to the top of the hill and look for the minarets which stand out like sharpened pencils waiting to write a message on the sky. Mosques are plentiful, situated in strategic places near the water or on a hill, each one with its own beauty. We are in and out of mosques throughout the day, and take off and put on shoes accordingly. Women need to cover their heads.
Unlike the church or cathedral, which goes out of its way to overawe the viewer, the mosques have a friendly look. The patterns are rhythmic, understated. The effect of colossal domes soaring overhead are countered by the long lines of lights hanging just above one’s head, like the friendly twinkle of stars in the vastness of the night sky.
The city streets are like one gigantic bazaar. Above all, there is the covered bazaar. One building, covering more than 60 wide pedestrian walkways and thousands of shops, it is the biggest covered bazaar in the world. It is also, I am sure, the cleanest. Not far away (all this is in the Eminönü district, the tourist area supreme) is the Egyptian spice bazaar, and on the nearby hills are the Topkapi Palace and the Archaeology Museum.
Of course, there is rubbish, especially late at night when you negotiate the subway under the main road (the safest way of crossing). The tunnel during the day is filled with vendors and shops, which are now shuttered. Men are moving amongst the mountains of litter on the floor, busily filling up large plastic sacks they carry for the job.
Anybody who wants a rest from walking (which we did by the 5th day) can catch the ferry boats which are constantly moving from one side of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus to the other. The rides are cheap.
Many hours of walking every day makes us very tired indeed. By the third day we don’t even hear the drummers.
Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, on November 14. I’m sorry I won’t be in Istanbul to see it.